Only four regular-season football games remain in 2016 for the University of Miami, and with them the remnants of once lofty goals.
After their first four-loss October since 1953, the Hurricanes meet Pittsburgh at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium.
Miami (4-4, 1-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) needs to win two of its last four games to be bowl eligible, with two of those matchups being on the road — against Virginia next week and against North Carolina State in two weeks.
The Panthers (5-3, 2-2), winners of three of their past four games, should be equally inspired. They can qualify for the postseason by defeating UM, which would give them plenty of breathing room with No. 3 Clemson (No. 2 in the recently released College Football Playoff rankings) looming next week in South Carolina.
As disheartening and close as most of their losses have been, the Hurricanes still have fight. Apparently, they just need to turn on the ignition a lot sooner. Games like last week’s at Notre Dame, in which the Canes scored 27 unanswered points to take a seven-point lead — only to lose that lead 56 seconds later — are ultimately draining and demoralizing.
“It’s time to get on our guys and correct mistakes,’’ UM offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said this week. “The positive thing is our guys have no quit in them. People can say what they want to say about our shortcomings, and we address them and we know about them, and, obviously, it’s not something we’re happy about. But we’re still committed as a team to getting better and winning football games.’’
UM coach Mark Richt made sure his practices were spirited from the minute the Hurricanes ran onto Greentree Field this week, changing things up a bit along the way. Last week’s embarrassingly unproductive first quarter — nine offensive plays for 2 yards — got everyone’s attention.
“We talked a lot about starting faster, because that’s been a little bit of the issue,’’ Richt said. “We didn’t start very fast last game, obviously. When we got the lead, we didn’t finish like we should. … I think you keep preaching it, keep demanding it, and when it happens everything becomes just a little easier.’’
What might not be so easy, judging by the past four losses, is protecting quarterback Brad Kaaya long enough to keep him clean and allow him to launch some completions. Kaaya, sacked 18 times the past four games, will be up against one of the finest defensive ends in college football on Saturday. Senior Ejuan Price leads the nation in tackles for loss with 16 and is second nationally with nine sacks. He also has three forced fumbles.
“Price, in particular, is a jet,’’ Richt said. “He is very, very fast off the ball. Very strong. … If you have one guy on him, it’s almost not fair, quite frankly. You have to try to get some help from tight ends and backs, maybe a guard sliding toward the guy. But if you just say, ‘Hey, tackle, you block him all day,’ and drop back to throw, I don’t know if anybody in America will hold up very well against that.’’
The problem is, the Canes are also having tremendous problems running the ball. UM had just 18 yards rushing against the Irish, 42 yards rushing at Virginia Tech the previous week and 62 against Florida State on Oct. 8.
The defense, which surprisingly has been Miami’s strength this season, will also have all it can handle in trying to stop 6-2, 235-pound redshirt junior James Conner, who leads the team with 672 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He also has 197 yards and two touchdowns receiving.
Conner returned this season after a nearly year-long absence fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma and rehabilitating a torn MCL, his amazing comeback nationally documented. In the 2014 season finale, Conner rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns to lead a victory at Miami and break Tony Dorsett’s single-season school touchdown record.
“He’s a tough dude,’’ UM end Trent Harris said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for him, and we know we’re going to have to get him on the ground. [He] just runs through tackles. You can’t tackle him with your arms. You’ve got to get your whole body on him [to keep] his legs from moving.”
Over its past seven games, Pitt has scored 277 points for an average of 39.6 per game, the program’s highest point total over a seven-game stretch in 39 years.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,’’ Richt said.